So I invited him to Mixergy to hear the details of how he turned his passion into a business, and how that business enables him pursue his passion.
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Here’s your program.
Andrew Warner: Hey, everyone. It’s Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy.com, home of the ambitious upstart. How does a web comic earn $1,000 a day in revenue? Last week The Economist magazine profiled Matthew Inman about the creation and revenue of his comic, “The Oatmeal.” They said that he did $1,000 a day in sales on a typical day and that he earned $70,000 in sales on a single day last year on Black Friday. I wanted to learn the details behind this incredibly successful story, so I invited Matt back to Mixergy for his second interview here.
Matt, good to meet you again.
Matthew Inman: Thanks for having me on.
Andrew: So, how many people came to your website, to TheOatmeal.com, last month?
Matt: Last month? I don’t know offhand, but I’m guessing, usually the average is between three million and five million uniques.
Matt: I think it was probably right in the middle because I think traffic was pretty good last month.
Andrew: I think last time you and I talked, we talked about Mingle2, the dating site that you launched. We also talked about SEO. How much SEO do you use to bring traffic to your site?
Matt: Pretty much zero. With The Oatmeal, the goal was to not do SEO for a living anymore. I just started to see it as a real brittle business model and I just was never that passionate about it. So with “The Oatmeal,” I do get traffic through SEO, but it wasn’t intentional.
For example, I made a comic about semicolons and how to use them, and now if you Google semicolons, I think I’m third or second or something like that in the search results. So I get traffic for that from people who are searching for the word “semicolon.” But that wasn’t the goal. I didn’t decide, oh, I’m going to rank for semicolons and build a business on it. It’s just kind of the result of making something that was well-linked to.
Andrew: Why? I’m surprised that you went in this direction, because you’re a guy who knew SEO really well. You used to be a consultant who showed other companies how to do search engine optimization. You got traffic for Mingle2, the dating site, through search engine optimization. You co-founded SEOmoz. Why would someone who knows so much about SEO just push it aside?
Matt: I think the real strength that I had with SEO wasn’t really the technical aspects of SEO itself. It was that I was good at creating things that drew in a lot of links, and that could be boiled down to creating things that people like.
So with Mingle2 in particular, that was what really pushed me over the edge, because basically my responsibility every day was to build quizzes, comics, little viral attractions, but the goal was to build links. And what ended up happening was that we were ranking for keywords and then Google kept burning down our sites because they don’t like you to be aggressive about that kind of thing. So my creativity was being rewarded by basically putting all of the value of our company into another company, in Google in particular and particularly one man at Google, who at any time can decide this is not a good linking practice and this is.
So I felt like the best use of what I was doing wasn’t SEO anymore. It would just be to create comics themselves. I created one when I was working for Mingle2 called “How to Tell If Your Cat is Plotting To Kill You.” The goal of it was kind of to build links, but it didn’t really work as an SEO tool. It just worked as a comic. People loved it. It got more traffic than anything I’d ever done, so that was when I kind of decided I clearly have some kind of knack for this sort of creative stuff and I think it’s a better fit for me than making little marketing gimmicks for SEO.
Andrew: I think this is encouraging for a lot of us who don’t know much about search engine optimization, don’t have much interest in it, but we keep hearing that we need to learn it, that we need to master it, that our businesses will fail unless we’re good at it. Here I’ve got someone who has mastered it and has intentionally pushed it aside to focus on other things.
So, what about this though? What about some simple search engine optimization tactics, like with Mingle2, you created quizzes that people could embed the results of on their websites and right underneath it, you’d have text that linked back to your site with the right anchor text. You could do that with comics, let people embed your comics on their websites and add anchor text that makes sense and that doesn’t violate Google’s terms of service and that does help what you’re trying to build. Why not do simple things like that?
Matt: Just because the success of my comics doesn’t bank on people searching for keywords. It banks on the humor and the insight in those comics and the utility of them. If I create a new comic, what’s going to make it successful isn’t going to be if someone Googles the word “dinosaur” or “bear with indigestion” and finds it. So, yeah, it can help a little, but I consider it like 2 percent with 98 percent being the creative process.
Also, my reputation is still suffering from being in SEO. There’s all kinds of threads that pop up about me on Reddit saying, “The Oatmeal’s a spammer. The whole goal of his site is SEO.” I haven’t done SEO in two years. So even with my brief foray into link-building, a lot of people still regard me as this slimy, greasy SEO because I used to do aggressive link building. I feel like with “The Oatmeal,” the further I can distance myself from that industry, the better.
Andrew: I see. Okay. And you’re right. I did notice that recently. I think in comments about this Economist article on Hacker News, people were talking about the comments that were said about you and search engine optimization on Reddit. This stuff just keeps staying out there and keeps growing or keeps getting talked about.
By the way, is the information in The Economist magazine that I used in the intro right? Do you, on a typical day, bring in $1,000 in revenue and on Black Friday last year, did you bring in $70,000 in revenue?
Matt: Yeah, that’s about right.
Andrew: Okay. So I want to find out how you got there, how you built up this business. Maybe we can go back before to your days at SEOmoz. I read online, I’m looking here at my notes, where you said that you were miserable there for a few years. Is that true or is that an exaggeration?
Matt: I think I was mostly happy there the first year or two, and then the last year or two I think it’s fair to say I was miserable there.
Andrew: SEOmoz is a search engine optimization website that you co-founded. Why were you miserable there towards the end?
Matt: There’s a lot of reasons. Some are personal. Some aren’t. But I think the biggest thing is that it was just a poor match for my personality. As you can tell from “The Oatmeal,” I’m a very creative person, very visually oriented, and at SEOmoz my tasks were mostly code, dev, system admin. I was building computers that would provide backup servers for all our old FreeBSD boxes. Stuff like that that I was okkay at, but it was never really a good match for me. So I feel like doing something where I can draw, where I can be funny and creative was much, much better.
Also, I am horrible with clients. Like, as a designer, I was great at making things that were pretty, but I wasn’t great at the other part of it, which is communication, feedback, iterating. Basically with design, which happened a lot at SEOmoz, I would make something, deliver it to the client, they would hate it. I’d get enraged. I’d throw a fit and that would be the end of the client. So not a good fit for me to be there.
Andrew: I see. You know, now that we’re talking about SEOmoz, I remember that I interviewed Rand Fishkin, the founder of SEOmoz, and when he was telling the story of how the company launched and grew, he never mentioned your name. How do you fit in there?
Matt: I don’t know really. When I worked there, we were actually under a different name, and it was just me, Rand, and his mom. We became SEOmoz, I think a year later, and then I was appointed as Chief Technology Officer. Rand was the CEO and his mom was the Vice President and we grew the company together. But as far was why he didn’t mention me, I have no idea.
Andrew: It’s possible that he didn’t mention you just because I didn’t bring it up.
Matt: And it might be just that what I did then is irrelevant to what they do now. I was a developer and a designer and I built a lot of SEO tools, but, as far as what SEOmoz offers now is such a different animal, it’s probably just wasn’t that relevant.
Andrew: And as a co-founder, did you invest money into the business?
Matt: No, I didn’t invest any money.
Andrew: Did you have shares of the business?
Matt: I did, yeah.
Andrew: You did. Okay. And how is that different from an employee who gets shares in the business?
Matt: How’s that different from an employee that gets shares?
Andrew: Right. Because it sounds like the business was there before you, and then you came on . . .
Matt: Yeah. I mean, honestly, it was a little contract we wrote up together. It was kind of informal, and the understanding was I had X percent of the company if we were to sell and when I quit, that kind of dissolved.
Andrew: That’s kind of a tough question for me to ask because it feels like I’m confronting you with that information, but it just occurred to me, and I figured I’d bring it up.
Matt: Actually, I haven’t talked about SEOmoz in a long time, so it’s kind of . . .
Andrew: Here’s a question that’s easier for me to ask. You’re a good looking guy. I’m looking at the comic version of you, and he’s a fat guy with a pointy hat and he looks ridiculous. You’re one of the few good looking SEO tech people. Why not show that off?
Matt: Well, what I’ve noticed with humor, in particular, is my characters are much funnier when they’re kind of bloated, sallow, obese people rather than lean, good looking whatever you want to call them. I’ve also noticed this with standup comics. I think comics who go on stage, people who look like Zach Galifianakis, just his appearance itself lends to his humor. If he got a haircut and dressed nicely, it wouldn’t be any funnier. So that’s sort of why I draw myself and all my characters as these kind of bloated, blank babies.
And also, I try not to put a lot of detail into them either, simply because, when you look at a comic character, I’ve found the more detail you put into that character, the less funny they become. And the more you leave out, the more the reader will project his own humor into it and they’ll see their own humor in that character, which is why comics are kind of a nice medium, because you can draw as simply as you want. With something even like animation, you have things like movement and voice narration, things that can actually change what people project into that character.
Andrew: How’d you start drawing?
Matt: I started when I was a kid, and I wanted to be some sort of artist when I grew up. But when I learned how to code, I kind of just put it on a back burner for a while. And then I became a web designer, and I got good at vector graphics and drawing icons, logos, websites, things like that. And that basically evolved straight into comics. I used the same tool to draw comics that I drew websites with.
Andrew: What’s that tool?
Matt: It’s Adobe Fireworks
Andrew: What is Adobe Fireworks?
Matt: Adobe Fireworks actually used to be a Macromedia product. It’s a website designing package. It’s kind of old and I actually wouldn’t recommend that people draw comics with it. Illustrator is much better or just pen and paper mixed with a pad and Photoshop. But it’s what I know and it’s what I’m fast with, so I stick with it.
Andrew: How’d you get started in web comics?
Matt: I started making quizzes at first. Like I was saying about the dating site, they were there to build links like, “How many five year olds could you take in a fight?” or “What are your chances of surviving a zombie apocalypse?” And eventually, the illustrations I was doing within those quizzes, the headers and the badges evolved into drawing comics. So I’ve only been drawing comics for, I think, a little over two years.
I think the best way to describe my drawing style is very poorly drawn but dressed up really well. If you look at the actual character, it’s very crude, but it’s got things like gradients and drop shadows and all this stuff around it that a web designer uses to sort of beef up a work.
Andrew: I thought when you launched TheOatmeal.com that what I saw was a series of quizzes. Is that what you launched with?
Matt: No. Well, it was a mix. I think it was six comics, two or three quizzes, and one or two illustrated stories. So I tried to just pick a bunch of different things that I knew I could make work.
Andrew: And this was in July 2009 when you launched?
Andrew: What made you decide to launch a website?
Matt: Essentially, when I left SEOmoz, I think part of the reason I wanted to set out on my own was to build my own website that was its own beast. It would be mine. I wouldn’t be in an office or anything like that. And I did that with the dating site, Mingle2 and then when Mingle2 was acquired, I had to go work for the people who bought it. So I kind of went back to where I had started. I was working for people. This creative process was under this umbrella of control.
So with “The Oatmeal,” it was, “All right, let’s do it for real this time. Let’s make my own website that can generate, be sufficient and not have to work for anybody.” So that’s what was the real decision for me. And seeing the success of the comics that I did before, I realized that I could probably make a comic website and have it do okay.
Andrew: And so was it always going to be a business?
Matt: In the beginning, I wanted it to be. I made a self-published book and I wanted to be able to at least generate some secondary income from it. And then, about two months in, I actually decided it probably couldn’t be a business. I thought this was a cute side project, but I don’t think I can do this full-time. So I started doing client work again. And then, I think it was October, is when I just finally kicked it into high gear and started making way more comics and working harder, basically. And that’s when traffic started spiking and when I realized I could actually do it for a living.
Andrew: This was October 2009?
Matt: Yup. I think it was four or five months after I launched.
Andrew: How’d you get traffic for the site originally, in the first few months?
Matt: Originally, it was mostly StumbleUpon, and I think I might have gotten on Digg once or twice. Actually, no, I just banned from Digg the first two months “The Oatmeal” was online, which is funny now because now Diggers love me. I submit my stuff and it goes straight to the homepage every single time. But in the beginning, they actually banned me. That and combined with the usual sharing it on Facebook, having it spread there, things like that.
Andrew: How’d you get yourself unbanned?
Matt: I think I just e-mailed them and said, “Hey, please unban me. I’m not spamming, I promise.” And I wasn’t. They actually, I think they unbanned me in like 10 minutes. They’re usually pretty responsive.
Andrew: In that lull, when you weren’t getting a lot of traffic and it didn’t seem like it was going to be a business, why did you continue with it? Why didn’t you just say, “I’m going to abandon this website and go find other projects”?
Matt: I’m not sure, really. While I was doing client work, it was a sharp reminder that I don’t like doing client work. And also I think I had one or two comics that did really well, and I realized that if I made more of these comics that did well, I could probably sustain myself with it. So that’s what sort of changed.
Andrew: And when you say “sustain yourself,” how were you thinking the revenue would come in that would sustain you? From what?
Matt: In the beginning, I had a self-published book, and I wanted the revenue to all come through that. That was the goal. And then ads from AdSense or wherever. In the beginning, that was sort of the goal. And then that sort of evolved into, I actually do better with posters than anything else.
Matt: Yeah. Yeah. Posters seem to sell the best.
Andrew: So at first it was a book and it was ads. What was the revenue breakdown between the two of them?
Matt: I think it’s about where it is now. I think ads about 20 percent and 80 percent is the merchandise.
Andrew: So 80 percent was coming in from the book in the first few months?
Matt: Well, in the first few months, I also did donations as well and that was a minor part of it. I had a donation page up for about a month, and then I took that down when I was able to actually have real merchandise on hand.
Andrew: Why do you think the donation didn’t do as well as merchandise?
Matt: I think, with donations, you’re not getting product and you’re giving somebody money. But I only did donations, that was not a long-term goal. I just did it because there was this brief month where I had tons of traffic, tons of visibility, but I had nothing to sell. So I was actually spending three or four grand a month on hosting costs for all the images I was serving up, and I wasn’t getting that back in. So I put up a donation page saying, “Hey, do you guys want to support ‘The Oatmeal’? Send me five or ten bucks, buy me a beer.” And that actually was able to pay for the hosting costs until I had posters and all that stuff in hand that I could actually sell things on the website.
Andrew: So what was the original book?
Matt: It’s actually the same title as the new book. It’s “Five Very Good Reasons to Punch a Dolphin in the Mouth.” It was 17 comics that I drew and I actually had it printed overseas. The first time I had it printed in Seattle and the second time overseas. And I ended up selling all of those and I got a book deal. The new book has the same title, it’s just way bigger. It’s got a year’s worth of comics and a bunch of new comics in it.
Andrew: What was in the original book? Comics that were already on the site or new comics?
Matt: Yeah, it was all the old ones: “Why You Should Keep Your Tyrannosaurus Rex Off Crack Cocaine;” “Things Bears Love;” “How To Tell If You Loved Ones Plot to Eat You.” That kind of stuff, kind of old Oatmeal.
Andrew: So I see a lot of people who take content that’s available free on the web and they repackage it into a paper book and they sell it. What’s the value for readers who see the content online in buying the book?
Matt: Well, for one, the book is something tangible that you can give as a gift. A website is a bit harder to share. Two, there’s some new material in the book, so there’s that.
Andrew: You mean, in the first book there was new material?
Matt: Oh, yeah. There were seven or eight comics that I didn’t release on the web, so there was that. There’s also that notion that people want to support an artist who they like. I know that doesn’t go a long way if you look at the music industry, but it did for me. I had a lot of fans who were like, “We want The Oatmeal to be able to do this full time. We don’t want him to have to work with clients, so let’s go buy his book and that way he can.”
Andrew: And you were spending thousands of months on bandwidth costs? That’s huge.
Matt: Yeah, it’s the first time I’ve ever had that happen. I think, mostly because all my comics were these high res PNGs that weren’t optimized very well and most of my material is images. So basically I was this giant image hosting machine. I wasn’t paying attention to the costs because I had never run into this issue before. I was using a local hosting company in Seattle and I switched away from that and started using Amazon S3 and I was able to cut the price down too, because S3 is cheaper.
Andrew: Why didn’t you degrade the quality of the images? Most people wouldn’t notice.
Matt: I did too, actually. Well, I didn’t degrade the quality. What I did was I found this cool script that you can run on a 24-bit PNG that will actually make it look exactly the same as it had before, it just is a lower file size. So I started running that on all the images to help cut down on the costs.
Andrew: Why not even further? I think you’re still spending thousands after you switched. In fact, after you switched, from what I read on Reddit, your costs went up, but a large part of that was because your traffic went up. Why not reduce the quality of the images even more?
Matt: I don’t know. I think with vector graphics, the best way for me to cut the costs down would be to switch everything to be a JPEG. I just hate the way vector graphics look as JPEG. I think it’s artifacted garbage. And I think the money is worth the [inaudible 21:17], especially if I’m interested in selling a poster or something. If you’ve got some pixilated blurry nightmare next to a poster saying, “Hey, buy a poster version,” it doesn’t really sell well. But mostly just because the price difference is not that great at this point, so I’m okay with leaving it PNG.
Andrew: How well did the book do when you first launched it?
Matt: The first month was actually pretty terrible. I had this expectation that I would [inaudible 21:48] and I think had a couple hundred of these books to sell, and that I’d get all this traffic and selling them would be super easy. But what I found was that, in the beginning, it was not super easy to sell something like that. So it actually took me like two or three months to sell a couple hundred copies. And then when “The Oatmeal” started to pick up speed, I did a second order of a couple thousand copies, and I sold all those in three weeks or something. It just took time to build it up.
Andrew: Were you selling the product, or shipping the product from your home?
Matt: Yeah. Yeah, at first I did it myself.
Andrew: Wow. What did you learn about selling in the early days?
Matt: For one, I’ve heard some statistic, I don’t remember exactly what it is, that when you read a website, you have to visit it 10 or 12 or 30 times, I don’t remember, in order to remember what website it was. You’ll read an article or an image and you actually don’t ever commit what that logo is. So I think with “The Oatmeal,” for them to actually remember my name, they probably had to visit my site 10 or 12 times. But to actually remember my name and like me enough to buy a product, it’s got to be like an insane number of times. So I learned that in order for someone to commit to buy something because they’re a fan, you actually have to repeatedly do well. You have to be constantly making things they like rather than just a one-off. That was a big part of it.
The other thing was that I found that utility sells better than just humor. With my posters, the things that we sell the most of are the grammar posters. “How to Use a Semicolon,” “How to Use an Apostrophe,” things like that, because they’re useful. Teachers buy them in bulk and hang them in the classroom. Selling something that you actually use, rather than something that just makes them giggle, actually usually sells a lot better.
Andrew: How interesting. What got you to create the “How to Use a Semicolon” comic?
Matt: I didn’t know how to use one. I kind of had this vague idea of it, but I was terrified to use it, because if you use a semicolon and you use it wrong, you look like you tried to look smart. It’s kind of an embarrassing thing. So I decided to tackle the problem and figure out how to use it, and then I documented that experience and turned it into a comic.
Andrew: So as someone who didn’t know how to use it who suddenly read it and then was teaching others, how concerned were you that maybe you got it wrong, maybe you were making a mistake as you were teaching?
Matt: Oh, I was terrified. Because you imagine making a comic saying, “This is how to use a semicolon,” and the Internet is not shy to correct you when you’re wrong especially when you kind of build up an image as a grammar guy. I actually have an editor who just helps me out with that kind of thing now. I sent it to her. She’s got a degree in, I don’t remember, library sciences or something, but she’s the expert. I send it to her just to make sure and she comes back with all these little minor things that might be wrong.
Andrew: And you send all your comics to her now?
Matt: Oh no. Just the grammar ones.
Andrew: Just the grammar ones. How many grammar ones do you make? I didn’t realize you made that many.
Matt: I think I’ve got four or five now and there’s a sixth one in the works about how to use a comma.
Andrew: So was there a mistake with the semicolon when you put that out there?
Matt: It wasn’t a mistake. It was more of . . . it’s actually still there, it’s just an issue of debate. One thing you’ll find is that if you ever make a post about grammar, suddenly every pedantic person from across the Internet will find you and point out every little thing that you spell wrong or do wrong. In the last panel of that comic, I think there’s something that not perfect, but it could be better.
Andrew: What is it?
Matt: I think it was when I was comparing the words “then” and “than.” Or actually, no, sorry, that’s from a completely different comic. That’s from “Ten Words You Need to Stop Misspelling.” There was an example I listed saying, “I’m better at holding my liquor than a panda bear,” meaning I can drink better than a panda bear can and it has a panda bear vomiting. And people were saying that the example I used means I’m better at physically holding a panda bear than a bottle of liquor. So it’s sort of an issue of then and than and what the context means. So it’s not something like I misspelled or used it wrong. It’s just an issue of how you look at it. And they may be right, but it happens.
Andrew: What about optimizing sales pages, landing pages, the way you present what you’re selling? What changed as you learned and as you were selling?
Matt: Honestly, I haven’t done much with that. I’ve been meaning to do some kind of split test or something to figure out what will make the posters sell better or whatever, but I put most of my energy just into making better comics. So I don’t have much to speak on that, other than free shipping tends to sell well. I don’t do sales very often. I do like two sales a year. And because I only do sales really rarely and usually big, like 40 or 50 percent, people respond really well to them, rather than the weekly 10 percent off this week, 5 percent off next week. I don’t do that. I wait six months and I do a huge sale.
Andrew: You said October 2010 is when you stopped doing client work and went full time. What did you do just before then that turned things around?
Matt: When I launched the site, I think I was doing one to four comics a month, maybe less. I’d put all this work into them and slowly debate on what I should do and what I shouldn’t. Right around that time, I started doing two to three comics a week. I didn’t sleep. I just drank coffee all the time. I just started churning out way more content, and when I did that, it sort of pushed over this edge and “The Oatmeal” just sort of exploded. That’s really what changed everything.
Andrew: Why do you think publishing more frequently changed things?
Matt: It just drove traffic up for me. The more comics I put up, the more people are reading my site, the more I was able to see it as a real job rather than just a side job.
Andrew: Ben Huh told me that’s one of the things that he did when he acquired Lolcats or I Can Has Cheezburger. “You just publish more frequently,” he said. “When people know that there are going to be more frequent posts, they’re more likely to come back more frequently and then that just builds on itself.” Sounds like you had the same experience?
Matt: Yeah. I mean, the difference is that I can’t afford to post four, five to ten times a day, and I try not to limit myself on a schedule now, just because I find that if I make comics when I can, it’s better. The humor suffers if I try to force a comic. But yeah, definitely posting more frequently in the beginning helped a lot.
Andrew: Do you have any goal for yourself or number that you need to get out of a week or a month?
Matt: Not really. Right now, I try to do one comic a week. If I can do two to three, that’s amazing, but usually it’s about one. The goal would be, if I can just keep making great comics, that’s the real goal rather than a specific number.
Andrew: I see. And when you started to do them more frequently, back in, I guess, was it October 2010, did I get that date right? No, I got it wrong. It was October 2009 when you stopped doing client work, right?
Andrew: I thought I saw an expression on your face when I said 2010 and then that made me realize I had the wrong date.
Matt: I figured, close enough, same month.
Andrew: That’s one of the benefits of video. I can see you when I’m making a mistake and the expression on your face. So when you did start to publish them more frequently, how did it affect your work?
Matt: It didn’t hurt it that much in the beginning, just because I don’t feel like I was producing worse comics. I was just working a lot harder. “The Oatmeal” was kind of in that new, up and rising phase, so it was real exciting for me to work on it. I could see that every comic I made kept getting more and more traffic. Because I was enjoying it a lot, I think the comics were getting better as well.
Andrew: I should ask you . . . I know it, but I’m sure my audience doesn’t. Why did you give the site the name “The Oatmeal”? Where did that come from?
Matt: I used to play a game called Quake when I was a teenager, and when I played online and I always used the name Quaker Oatmeal. So, eventually, I started using the name Oatmeal on the Internet when I signed up for things. I’m Oatmeal at Gmail, Twitter and Facebook, all that. So when I decided to make a website, I really had no way to name it after what it was themed. It’s not Calvin and Hobbes. There’s no two characters. So I just called it “The Oatmeal” because that’s a name that I’d been using for so long.
Andrew: Gotcha. What was the next product after the book?
Matt: I want to do a second book. It’s probably going to be about cats, but I’m not sure.
Andrew: I mean going back. You had the book and you had AdSense. What was the next thing that you started selling?
Matt: I believe it was posters. I think it was a grammar poster of “How To Use an Apostrophe,” was the first product. Initially, I used Zazzle, which is sort of like CafePress. It’s one of those all-in-one merchandizing solutions. Then eventually I switched to printing it myself because, with Zazzle, I think I sold 10,000 posters and I got a check for like 50 bucks. That wasn’t the actual number, but you don’t earn much from that. So I found that if I can just get the warehousing and the distribution out of the way and deal with that, then I can actually make real money with it, rather than just chump change.
Andrew: How’d you decide on the comic to make into a poster?
Matt: At first, it was the grammar ones because everyone that read them would e-mail me and say, “Hey, you should make this into a poster. I want to put it in my classroom.” That was in the beginning. And now, I just do it based on if I think it’s poster-worthy and how much feedback I get. There’s one I just did a month ago called “Cat vs. Internet.” There’s no poster, there’s no merchandise of it at all, but everyone’s been e-mailing me about it so much that I’m probably going to turn it into a little flipbook or a poster or something like that.
Andrew: By the way, if you’re seeing me, or if anyone in the audience is seeing me adjust the mic a lot and adjust the computer, I’m trying to somehow get the mic to not pick up on the fan on my laptop that’s just going nuts for some reason. So I keep moving the mic away. I keep moving the computer away from the mic, and so far it’s helping but only a little bit.
How effective or how successful was the poster when you first launched that?
Matt: They did well. I think when I launched “How to Use an Apostrophe,” I put out another grammar comic right away after that. So the traffic from the two kind of fed off each other. So they did really well.
Andrew: And Digg. At what point did you start to see consistent traffic coming from Digg?
Matt: It was that same magical month. It was around October 2009. A lot of people who try to get on Digg find a power user, submit it, try to make it look like it wasn’t a marketing company, try to make it look like it wasn’t an actual social media guy and they try to make it look natural.
With me, I took an opposite route. I’m on Digg. I’m “The Oatmeal” on Digg. I’ve been on Digg since the site was founded, pretty much. I’m one of the oldest accounts on there. So I just submitted comics from “The Oatmeal,” called it the “Oatmeal.” It was like real obvious. I was in the comments a lot responding to users, being like an actual real part of the community rather than just going in there and trying to leach off of Digg’s traffic. And they rewarded me for it, so that’s awesome because now Digg, they like having me on their website. They Digg up my stuff. And if they don’t like my comics, they’ll bury them or they won’t get promoted. I’ve kind of got a really good stride with that community.
Andrew: I even heard Kevin Rose talk about you on Leo Laporte’s show, on “This Week in Tech.” I think he said you were one of his favorite comics or that you’re popular with Digg. So, I see that you’re in the community. In the beginning, when you were getting feedback, what was that feedback like?
Matt: It was horrible. You post a comic on Digg and all the users are like, “This is the worst thing I’ve ever seen. This makes the Internet less funny,” and all this kind of horrible stuff. But, as I consistently put out comics that they liked, eventually, I found that the positive feedback started to outweigh the negative. So most people that say, “Oatmeal should go kill himself,” or whatever, they usually get Dugg down and the people who compliment my comics get Dugg up.
Andrew: How do you respond to someone who says, “This is the worst comic I ever saw in my lif.”?
Matt: When I used to work for people I had this sense of diplomacy. I had to respond like, “Well, I’m sorry you feel that way. I appreciate your criticism,” and blah, blah, blah. Now I work for myself and really no one can control what I say. So usually I tell them that I slept with their mom or I say the most vile, awful thing I can think of. If you read my Twitter account, it is like Hitler’s port-a-potty. It’s the worst thing that you’ve ever seen, just this awful stuff that I say to my critics on there. Just to troll them, mostly. So that’s usually how I respond to it. LIke a drunk 15 year old, I think, is the best way to put it.
Andrew: I saw it. It’s actually much funnier than a drunk 15 year old. But I would think the opposite would happen. When you’re working for yourself and a mistake can cost you personally money and cost you the business that you love, wouldn’t you be more cautious? Wouldn’t you worry more that you’d lose this whole thing that you love so much?
Matt: Not really. My business doesn’t bank on my reputation as much as just putting out great material.
Andrew: What about in the beginning when you were going into Digg and you knew that if you won this group of people over, they’d send you massive traffic and if you turned them into haters, they’d bury you and you wouldn’t get anything from them. At that point, weren’t you nervous?
Matt: Yeah. At that point, I wouldn’t have gotten on Digg and been like, “Hey, your mom and I made love under the stars. Ha ha ha. I liked it.” That probably wouldn’t go over so well. But now I’m kind of at this comfortable level. And part of my writing style and the persona that I have online is sort of this crass, bloated, obese, drunk monster. So, in the beginning, you’re absolutely right, probably insulting my critics wouldn’t have gone over so well.
Andrew: I notice for myself, sometimes in my interviews I’m less articulate than other times. I feel like it’s happening to me, for some reason, here today in this interview. For me, I can’t go back and delete myself and dub over my voice and fix the way that I sound. I just have to let it go and then trust that eventually I’ll get better and better as I do my interviews. Will you let something go out there that you feel isn’t perfect because you have to put something out there? How do you deal with that? Do you have these issues and how do you deal with them?
Matt: Yeah, sometimes I do. I actually oftentimes have this sense of urgency with my comics. Like, oh, I need to make a comic. I need to hurry. I need to hurry. And when I’m making a comic and it’s like today, it’s a Tuesday and I’ve got the rest of the day to draw, for some reason I feel like I have to get this comic out as quick as possible. And sometimes I do put out things that aren’t perfect, even if I’d actually worked on it a bit, I would have been better. I’m not sure where that comes from.
Andrew: How does it effect you to put something out there that’s not perfect?
Matt: I usually can tell right away if my fans don’t like a certain comic. It’ll make you hate your job for about ten minutes, and then after that you get over it and you figure out what you did wrong and try to make some things better. On one occasion, only one occasion, I actually pulled a comic from my site. Or I removed all the links to it. I didn’t actually take it down, but I removed all the links because I was so ashamed of how awful it was.
Andrew: Which one and why?
Matt: It was called “Hungover Aliens” and it just was the most horribly received comic I’ve ever done. It wasn’t offensive, it was just not funny. When I wrote it, I made this mistake of assuming all these characters had this tone that I thought was funny. When I launched the comic, people who read it didn’t necessarily hear that same tone. They heard whatever voice they wanted to hear and it just completely neutered the humor. But I only did that once. And please don’t Google that comic because it’s awful.
Andrew: So what’s your process? How do you get your ideas out there?
Matt: How do I get ideas or how do I get them out there?
Andrew: How do you go from having no idea, to suddenly getting the idea, to drawing it, to putting it on the computer and getting it out? What’s your full process from nothing to something that everyone Diggs and interacts with?
Matt: Since becoming a comic artist, I’ve started paying a lot more attention to what’s going on around me. Things that we’re all feeling, we’re all doing, we’re all seeing, but no one’s articulating in the right way.
For example, I was on a plane and my girlfriend and I were talking about apps and there was an app that was $1.99 or $1.00 and I was stressing about, oh, it’s $2.00, I don’t know. Even though I’m on a plane and the ticket was $600 and the Starbucks before I got on the plane was $7. So I realized that a lot of people in our generation, we stress about app purchases at $1.00 even though we buy things like iPhones and cars and houses and $8.00 mochas. So I saw that and thought it was sort of a universal feeling we all have, let’s put it into a comic.
You take that, and I start to do that with everything lately. I have these little notebooks. I’ve got notebooks all over my house. I carry them in my pocket and I write things down all the time when I get an idea. And then from there, it’ll sit in little notebook land for sometimes a couple weeks before I decide it’s good enough to turn into a comic.
Usually, I’ll semi-script something, loosely into a notepad. Then I’ll get on the computer and I’ll draw it. A lot of times, I write the humor as I draw it and it all changes. There’s no perfect representative of my comics on pencil and paper. They grow up and evolve as I draw them. And then from there, I slice them up and I put them on the website. Usually, I’ll submit to Digg first and then everything else, I’ll do Digg, Twitter, Facebook and then I’ll just leave it alone and watch the traffic. So that’s sort of the process.
Andrew: Digg is number one. What’s number two? Twitter or Facebook? As far as traffic.
Matt: Oh, as far as what generates traffic the most? Well, in my opinion, those are kind of two different things. Digg I see as outside traffic, new users. It’s somebody else’s website. With Twitter and Facebook, those are my own fans who have committed to following me. But I do them in that order because I need to be the one to submit it to Digg because I have my Oatmeal account and I try to submit all my comics from there. And then Twitter and Facebook, it doesn’t matter if I submit it first, I just prefer to.
Andrew: What about Reddit?
Matt: I used to submit to Reddit. I still do occasionally, but I found that with Reddit, the best thing is just to leave it alone and if Redditors want to submit it to a thread, they can. If not, they can just leave it alone.
Andrew: Why do you think that you can’t submit there? Why are things different there?
Matt: There’s a core group of Redditors who hate me. I’m guessing it’s probably between 300 and 1,000 people. And I’ve found lately, that if I submit my own comic, it gets more negative feedback than if I just leave it alone and if they want to get it on the Reddit homepage, they can. If not, fine with me. Rather than getting on there and saying, “Hey everybody, I’m The Oatmeal. Here’s a comic. Redd it if you like it. If not, leave it alone.” So I try to just stay away from it.
Andrew: What’s the story behind you Rickrolling the people at Reddit?
Matt: [Laughs] I’ve actually never told anybody why I did that. It technically wasn’t a Rickroll. It was a Rickroll and I did Cher’s “Do You Believe In Life After Love” and the song “Informer” by Snow. So it was more like a three song coupled thing.
Andrew: So how did it come about and why did it come about and what did you do?
Matt: I needed a vacation from Reddit. Let’s just put it to you that way. I was making comics and I felt like Reddit would take my comics, get them on the front page, I wouldn’t even submit them and then what would follow was like 20 pages of hate about The Oatmeal. And then there were threads popping up saying…
One of them that kind of pushed me over the edge was someone posted on Reddit saying, “The Oatmeal is an a-hole.” And there were all these people saying, “Oh, I’ve met him in person. He’s a total jackass” and blah blah blah. I don’t actually meet that many people in person. I don’t speak publicly much. I don’t go to conferences. And when you do meet me, I’m actually kind of a nice guy. I’m not a jackass.
So, I messaged a couple and was like, “I’m sorry, I don’t know when we met, but I don’t know what I did to offend you.” And most of them either didn’t write back or they wrote back and said something like, “Oh, yeah, we actually never really met, I just saw you once,” or “I never met you, I was just kind of on a witch hunt.” So, that kind of stuff, I was like, I’m tired of reading Reddit. I’m tired of making comics and thinking, are Redditors going to hate this or are Redditors going to like it. So I went on a little vacation and I wanted to discourage them from linking to me for a while.
Andrew: So what did you do?
Matt: I set up a Rickroll, a Rick/Cher/Snow-roll and enjoyed the absence of commentary for a while.
Andrew: So when anyone clicked from Reddit to theoatmeal.com, they saw one of those three videos instead of The Oatmeal?
Andrew: [Laughs] That’s pretty clever. What was going on in your head? You said you were thinking of Reddit as you were creating your comics. And how did that shape what you were creating? Did it stop you from creating? Did it move you in a direction? Were you trying to avoid their wrath as you were designing?
Matt: I used to think it as useful, but I actually found it’s just more poisonous than anything. And not just Reddit. Any Internet commentary can be pretty negative and that can be pretty poisonous to the creative process. I guess I just needed a little bit of a break from that for a while. And lately, I’ve found that I try not to read Reddit at all. I read Reddit. I just don’t read it if it’s about me because it’s usually not very nice.
Andrew: What I mean is, when I talked to Seth Godin and asked him why, even though he has a very popular blog, he refuses to allow comments on his site, he said when he accepted comments, his started to think, “What will my commenters like? How do I get more comments.” And he said, “That’s not the way I need to think. I need to stop this so I can focus on what I really want to think about.” How did your art change, how did your comics change as a result of the feedback?
Matt: I think the feedback that has changed my comics somewhat wasn’t from comments, it was from traffic. I found that certain themes, that if I attack, will actually drive traffic like crazy and that other things won’t.
In particular, writing about a gripe. It’s the stand-up routine where someone gets up there and says, “What’s the deal with airline food?” You take that and you apply it to a comic. Those ones go crazy. Like, “Things That You Shouldn’t Do In E-Mail,” “How to Suck at Facebook,” “Words You Should Stop Misspelling,” these are all gripes. That was one that changed. But that is, hopefully the one that stands alone. I try to make things that I think are funny and that I enjoy. But the gripe one is one that I sort of embellished a little more because it seemed to resonate with people.
And actually, I had the rare opportunity a couple weeks ago of having lunch with Gary Larson. And one of the questions I asked him was what kind of feedback did you have on your work and did it change your work. And he said, I can almost quote him exactly, he said that he worked in a tiny little dark hole for 15 years with zero feedback, didn’t do a book tour. He just wrote what he liked and what he thought was funny and that humor coincided with his fans.
When I heard that that was when I was like, that’s how I want to be. I don’t want to operate off of these little trolls. I don’t want to operate off of my traffic. I don’t want to operate off of what sells the most merchandise. I want to operate off of what I think is funny because that seems to be what works best most of the time.
Andrew: I also have here on my list, I wanted to ask you about e-mail. You didn’t bring up e-mail when I asked you where you get your traffic. I just finished Hugh Macleod’s latest book, an he seems to think of e-mail as his direct channel to his fans. That’s his main form of communication with them. Have you tried e-mail?
Matt: Like a newsletter?
Andrew: Yeah, it seems like, for him, it’s an e-mail newsletter, where he sends, what does he call it, one of his drawings a day.
Matt: Oh, OK. I’ve got a newsletter set up and it’s got a following on it, but it is a fart in the wind compared to Facebook fan pages as far as a way to communicate with people. And also, people are much more willing to click “like” on Facebook than they are to enter their e-mail into somewhere where they may or may not get more updates than they want or spam or whatever. I’ve had much better luck hooking them with Twitter and Facebook and my RSS feed than I have with e-mail.
Andrew: I see. And I did see that your comments are basically Facebook comments, right? You just embedded one of the Facebook commenting systems into your site. Why and how did it affect your site?
Matt: I integrated it into the blog section on my site because I sincerely wanted to see what would happen if I had comments. Because I didn’t want comics on my major comics, but on the blog I sort of looked at it as little cutesy comics that aren’t good enough for the main section.
And it’s actually been kind of helpful. It’s nice reading them and seeing all these fans talking. There’s a sense of community with that, but it’s sort of halfway there because it’s a community and there are people commenting but they aren’t repeat users, they aren’t signed up, they aren’t doing anything. They’re just kind of commenting and leaving.
I’m actually kind of on the fence as to whether or not I’ll keep them. I particularly don’t want to put them on a lot of my bigger comics, just because, more for the readers sake too. I don’t know when the last time was that you saw a YouTube video and you scrolled through the comments and you were like, “Ah, I feel better now that I read those. I feel more whole as a person.” You don’t. It’s the worst, worst, worst thing to read that. And not necessarily that they’re being mean, it’s just that they seem to have room temperature IQs when they comment in YouTube comments. I probably won’t put them on the comics anytime soon.
Andrew: Lately I’ve been thinking the Tumblr system is probably best. No comments on blog posts. If people really want to say something, let them reblog it and say something on their own blog. It’s great for the site that created the content originally and it also keeps the comments cleaner, or the reactions cleaner.
Matt: I really like Tumblr. I started using Tumblr for the first time like a month ago and I love the software. I love the format and the way it works.
Andrew: Yeah, really well designed.
Matt: I’ve been trying put some comics there lately.
Andrew: On your blog you have a section where you call out, I think it’s called retarded e-mails. Why do that? Why call people out by name?
Matt: Those people, I have their permission to do it.
Andrew: You do? I didn’t know that.
Matt: Yeah. Yeah.
Andrew: Including the woman who you call, “The most retarded e-mail,” or something like that, who’s having some kid of legal trouble with her kids? She gave you permission?
Matt: Yeah. She e-mailed me that spectacle that you see and I wrote her back and I said, “You know, Kimberly, this is a really insightful comment you’ve got on dyslexia and how Americans interpret that. Would you mind if I post it on my site along with your name and your e-mail. That way, if people want to give you some feedback, they can.” And she’s like, “Well of course! This is a huge issue we need to discuss.” So then I awarded her the Retarded E-Mail Hall of Fame Champion. So that’s why her name’s on there.
Andrew: OK. But what about bait and switch though? Didn’t you trick her?
Matt: I think I was clear enough. And she’s in jail right now, I think, so I don’t think she can respond. But when she gets out, I’m sure she’ll probably ask me to take to down.
Andrew: Are you worried that she might come after you right after she comes out of prison?
Matt: In what way? Like with a crowbar or with a lawyer?
Andrew: With a crowbar, yes.
Matt: I don’t think she’ll… Have you read about her? I don’t she has a lawyer, but the pipe or the crowbar seems more likely. She doesn’t look very fast, so we’ll see.
Matt: She doesn’t look spry. Do you know what I mean?
Andrew: [Laughs] I actually find that section very funny, but I saw people were complaining about it so I figured I’d bring it up. What about… How did you get a book deal after you self-published your own book?
Matt: I think it was just getting enough visibility and exposure that a couple publishing houses took notice and then the grammar comics obviously put my comics on the desk of every editor in America. I did it kind of in an odd way. Most people, they go get an agent, the agent negotiates the book deal and then you get your book. I actually had a book deal on the table and a few interested people and I actually went to an agent and got one and then had her go negotiate and help me because it was just a totally different animal and some publishers won’t even talk to you unless you have an agent.
Andrew: And then how did the agent reshape your deal? What did the agent know that you couldn’t do yourself?
Matt: She was able to put together, it’s called a literary plan or something like that. A literary proposal. And then she sent it to 17 different publishers and was able to get back a couple offers and negotiate a better deal from them. And to talk to me about it. So mostly it was formally exposing me to way more publishers, because some still didn’t even know who I was, and then negotiating for a better deal.
Andrew: Aside from money, what makes for a better deal in the publishing world?
Matt: I think having more creative control of your work. For me, what I was most interested in was not having someone who’s going to tell me, “You can’t use this word” or “You have to make this comic less gross” or whatever. And the publisher I picked was Andrews McMeel, who is the same publisher who published Gary Larson’s The Far Side, Calvin and Hobbes, Dilbert, Doonesbury, Foxtrot, all these comics which I loved. So with that I saw, this is the type of book that I want to write, these guys, I know they won’t try and screw with it, so let’s work with them. And plus they knew comics really well so it was my first choice.
Andrew: What about cover design? I see that that’s often an issue for writers.
Matt: I didn’t have any problem with that. I think most of my book is visually oriented anyway and maybe a lot of writers, the only visual is the cover, so they focus on that like it’s this big thing. But for me, the cover was, pfft, that’s two hours of work. “Five Reasons to Punch a Dolphin in the Mouth,” The Oatmeal, done. Picture of a dolphin. It wasn’t that big a deal.
Andrew: They let you design it yourself?
Matt: The cover?
Matt: Yeah, I did everything. I did even all the layout inside and everything. They helped me with the mechanics of the back and the binding and that kind of stuff though.
Andrew: Yeah, a lot of writers have told me that they have no control over the cover. They’ll actually have a cover designed and the publisher won’t allow them to use it.
Matt: Oh, no kidding.
Matt: I didn’t know that. Maybe they’re trying to pick something that sells better or something.
Andrew: Not artists, writers have told me that. Do you ever get writer’s block?
Matt: Sometimes. It’s more just like kind of a vacant lack of ideas and a sense of being uninspired. I found, for me, coffee helps with that. Being caffeinated generally seems to help. I actually am the most creative at night after the caffeine glow fades there’s sort of a strung out, weird creative burst that always comes around 10:00 p.m. and that’s when I usually get the most ideas.
Or if I’m on airplanes. I don’t know what it is about being locked in a cabin with crappy food and pressurized environment. It’s like this Christmas tree of lights aglow inside my head and I start writing things down in my notebook. But I look at them alter and they’re genius. Yet I’ll be sitting in my house, trying to work for six or seven or eight hours and I’ve got nothing and I’ve got Twitter going off and my IM, iTunes, all this crap in front of me just distracting me. But on a plane it’s like being locked into this boring, boring room so you have nothing to do but farm your own brain for crops.
Andrew: I find that too for me. On a plane with no distractions I get so much more done. I hate that they’re adding WiFi to planes now.
Matt: I know. It’s going to ruin it. I’ve gotta find some other… Maybe I should just go to jail or something. I don’t know.
Andrew: Aside from getting on a plane, what can you do if you want to generate creativity? What do you do?
Matt: The old formulas I used to use when I was building comics and quizzes for clients was I would take the specific word that I want to market, so if I’m trying to sell dishwashers or laundry machines, I would take that word and then basically just come up with a series of random nouns and try to attach them to it to try to create something whimsical or funny or draw connection that you didn’t see before. So from that you could connect, like, how long could I survive inside of my own washing machine. You could create some kind of funny little viral quiz from that. So the noun formula is probably the simplest thing that I’ve ever done to generate ideas.
Other than that, like I said before, listening and thinking about what we’re all saying and what we’re all doing and articulating it. Whether that be something that we have a problem with, like the BS that we have to go to through getting onto an airplane or something minor like when you walk through a cobweb and the worst part isn’t that you have cobwebs on you, it’s that you think there’s a spider on you. These are feelings that are universal, that we all share. Trying to just identify those and put in the right words.
Andrew: I’m sitting here thinking, “Should I ask this next question or not.” I think I’ll just go for it. I know what I’m getting out of this interview. I get to hear an inspiring story. I get to add it to my website and that’s what my site’s about. I get probably traffic because The Oatmeal is very popular online. The creator of that comic is popular, so I’m going to get traffic for it. I’m wondering what’s in it for you?
Matt: I don’t know really. I’m not going to try to sound greedy, but I know you have a good following. The last time I did an interview with you, lots of people ended up e-mailing me through that saying, “Oh, I didn’t know you lived in Seattle. I do this.” So I actually made a lot of cool connections that way.
Andrew: Wow. Cool. I know I got a lot out of that interview too. First of all, I got to tell your story forever and I said, “This is the kind of story that I want to find for Mixergy.” And second, I remember getting traffic even back in the early days, back when hardly anybody knew me, the few people who did ended up sharing your story with their friends. It was an inspiring story too. In a matter of hours you launched this online dating site, you showed the sketch of it online, you came here to talk about how you built it, how you grew it, how you got traffic for it. It was a great story.
Matt: That was a good interview.
Andrew: So let me ask you this. The final question is this. I know there are going to be some people who are listening to this interview who are in a situation that you were in a year or two ago, where they just don’t like their jobs, they’re not inspired by it. They know that there’s something better that they’re meant to do, but they don’t know how to get started and how to build up something like what you have with The Oatmeal. What advice do you have for that person who’s listening to us right now?
Matt: I would say, for one, if you start a new project, be patient with it, build, work on it. With The Oatmeal, I was impatient. LIke I said, in the first few months, I was like “Oh, I can’t make money with this. I can’t live off this. We should just throw it away and go back to doing what I used to do.”
This is going to sound super cheesy, but embrace social media. It’s worked really well for me. I feel like right now the Internet is a wonderful place to be because it’s so easy to make something small and just explode it out there. I’m a one man operation and I just calculated the number of pageviews I got in 2010. It was a quarter of a billion almost. From one guy. So if one guy can generate that much traffic, I feel like the Internet has kind of come to fruition. In the 90s there was all this talk about, oh on the Internet, one guy can be huge, you know barbeque.com will change the room and stuff like that was thrown around. But I feel like it didn’t really get into it’s stride until now with things like Twitter and Facebook and social sites where you can make one little thing and explode it out there.
Make something funny. Make something interesting. Say something someone hasn’t said. Seed it on Facebook. Seed it wherever you want to seed it and just see what happens. Keep iterating.
Andrew: And stick with it. Well, thanks for doing the interview. The website is theoatmeal.com and Matt, thanks again.
Matt: Thanks for having me.
Andrew: Cool. Stick with me for a moment. Guys, thank you all for watching.
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